Image from the exhibition.
Weapons have always exerted a special attraction on men's minds.
It is said that, in this century, the most brilliant intellects
have been monopolized by weaponry. But the phenomenon is not new.
From Archimedes and Vitrivius to Alfred Nobel, whose life (1833-1896)
is contemporary to the present models, names such as Leonardo da
Vinci and Francesco di Giorgio, have been associated with weaponry.
In fact, there is a striking similarity between some of Leonardo's
designs and these patents. In his 1871 patent (No. 115,659) for
a Repeating Ordnance, A. H. Townsend states:
My invention relates to that class of guns which is constructed
to throw numerous balls from different barrels, and either
simultaneously or in quick succession.
While Leonardo, writing to Ludovico Sforza said:
I have also types of cannon with which to hurl small stones
with the effect almost of a hail storm.
Comparison of the drawings shows identical basic designs.
Obadiah Hopkins' redoubt (Patent No. 32,206) may also owe much
to Leonardo's Armoured Car, at least in general appearance and shape.
There is, in weapons, at the design stage, a geometric simplicity,
a ballistic necessity and a distanced objectivity attractive to
the mathematical mind. The mind of the designer engrosses itself
so totally in its primary objective that it becomes as possessed
by an "idee fixe". Other consequences and side effects
are minimized, discounted, or forgotten. It takes the impact of
the organic for the full horror to splash on the mind. Firearms
make this impact more distant. And so, even Peter Cooper could love
his torpedo boat for the sake of freedom, while Leonardo could write:
When besieged by ambitious tyrants, I find a means of offence
and defence to preserve the chief gift of nature, which is Liberty.
But as Martin Kemp remarks:
This may sound like the worthy sentiments of a Florentine
democrat, until we realize that it was written while he was working
for Ludovico [Sforza] il Moro, usurper of absolute power in Milan,
to whom Leonardo was committed to divulge his military secrets.
And so it goes "mutatis mutandis."
Of course, it is not simply the long range of weapons that makes
the distancing possible. The mind does it through the use of language:
euphemism and caricatures. Colt's revolver exhibited at the Crystal
Palace in London in 1852 was said to be
perfect for subduing the irregular, impetuous rush of such
warlike tribes as the Kaffirs, the Afghans, the American Indians
and the New Zealanders.
Like a vanishing El Dorado, or the proverbial better mouse-trap,
each new weapon was supposed to bring the final answer, the final
victory that would usher peace. Yet, it turns out to be no more
than a challenge to the inventive genius of another inventor who
sets out to out-perform the latest invention.
Sabers and bayonets, however, which call for hand-to-hand combat
or even eye-to-eye contact, retained something of the mystical power
of the ceremonial weapons found in the tombs of the Ancient Warriors.